It is only appropriate I start this blog about an area of coaching that I believe is essential in producing mind healthy athletes a nd a positive culture within your program. The other day I posted on my facebook page a simple blurb about the book The Practicing Mind by Thomas M. Sterner. Sterner hits at the heart of the mental obstacles facing anyone in pursuit of optimum performance.
As a nervous athlete myself and someone who many times focused on all the wrong things the mental game of sports has been a lifelong study. Ironically, when I was about twelve years old my mom gave me the book, The Inner Game of Tennis by Tomothy Gallowey. At the time my mother and I spent many summer days playing tennis and this was her answer to improving my game (thanks mom). Little did I know this book had many of the answers to my mental obstacles I would face later in my athletic career. Unfortunately, at the time I was too young to understand the content and apply it to my psyche.
Many sentinel moments in my wrestling career were marred by incredibly debilitating anxiety. I can vividly recount waiting to take the mat for my state finals match my senior year in high school and thinking how great it would be to be lying on my couch at home rather than focusing on the upcoming match. I won the match only because I physically out gunned my opponent not because I was mentally on the that fine line.
This misguided mental focus followed me all the way through my college wrestling career and for the most part made my competitive life mostly miserable. As a junior at Oklahoma State I can reflect back to a match against Iowa for what was considered the National Dual Championship and how worried about losing I was. Not only was I worried about losing and letting my teammates down I also was worried about how tired I was going to get against returning NCAA Champion Jim Zelesky. It was physically and emotionally paralyzing to carry the weight of the world into the circle that night with such a distorted focus. In retrospect, I realize now I lacked a couple of basic elements to a successful competitive mindset. First, and foremost was perspective. My mind was so focused on the negative (outcome) and a warped sense of reality that I could not get out of my own way to perform at my optimum level. It was a self fulfilling prophecy to worry about losing and than creating a self realization of that thought. Now, I don’t know if I would have been anymore successful against Zelesky that night but if I had the correct mindset and focused on “the process” rather than the outcome, not only would I have performed better but I would have enjoyed the activity a hell of a lot more.
We hear a lot coaches talk about process these days. People have realized the power of living in the moment and having a filter on the negative unproductive thoughts that can creep in and take over our brains. Developing these skills as an athlete can be difficult if the program culture does not have the right kind of tenants. Having been the nervous athlete I quickly could identify with my athletes I coached who suffer from the same mental obstacles. I started to study the mental edge of sports which brought me back to Gallowey’s book my mom had given me years ago. This created the beginning of an ongoing conversation about focusing on the process, being present in the moment and creating self-talk or what I like to call a personal mantra to success (the voice in our heads that keeps us on the nuts and bolts of the task at hand). It wasn’t enough to just have the conversation, I needed to change the entire culture in the program and how we as members of the team (athletes, wrestlers, parents) approached the sport in a holistic process driven manner. It started with our vocabulary and body language. We needed to send the message that winning was not the goal – getting better each day was. This is an easy thing to say but very hard to achieve. As the head coach I had to filter out those statements that created unnecessary anxiety that focused on winning rather than on the actual tasks that lead to success (effort, technique, mindset, strategy). We had to scourge the urge to relate skills, work ethic and technique to winning and instead focus our language on pursuit of mastery. This has not been easy and sometimes we as coaches will catch ourselves reverting back to what I call, “The Biggest Game of Your Life” mentality. We also learned that body language can speak louder than words and how you deal with your athletes losses and even wins sends a very strong message to them on what your true values are. If we truly address the sport from a “process” oriented approach than throwing chairs after a tough loss and screaming at the kid is probably not going to cut it. If both athlete and coach are focused on the right things than a constructive and collected conversation about what went well, what needs to be improved on and where we go from here can take place in the teachable moment. If emotions get the better of one of the two people involved that moment for improvement can be lost. I am not saying we are robots and act like Spock after a tough loss. What I am talking about is having “perspective” and as Sterner so eloquently points out a “Beginners Mind.”
It is my belief that the more we can get kids in this day and age of smart phones and screen time to focus on the “here and now” the better it will be for them and the more productive we will all be as a culture. As a coach when we are in the heat of practice working on a specific detail like head position and lines of defense and a kid walks up to me and asks, “what time does the bus leave tomorrow and do we have to make scratch weight” I know I have lost him. On the other hand, if I look up during instruction and have eyes intently open and kids asking specific well thought out questions regarding the task at hand I know our culture is on the right path.